I say potayto and you say potaato, I say tomayto and you say tomaato… and so goes probably the most famous song lyric featuring an argument. Stupid example but proof, if nothing else, of the fact that people will argue about virtually anything.
It also suggests that the way many of us argue is by repeating our position and then endlessly extolling its virtues.
So what alternatives are open to us and is it really possible to win arguments without resorting to tactics such a veiled threats (… you do know of course, if we do Y then X will happen), guilt (… well, ultimately of course, I need to do what’s best for…) and rank (…as the person responsible for…)?
I think it is and it’s an easy premise to grasp – at least intellectually.
The idea is to refrain completely from trying to persuade your ‘opponent’ until you have really grasped their point of view. Because at this unique point of comprehension, a number of things will have already happened:
- They will recognise that you are trying to understand their position
- They will feel less attacked
- They will be more curious to know what’s on your mind (why is she listening to me even though I know she disagrees?… She must have a good reason…)
- To you, they will no longer seem so much like an opponent
The last change is particularly important. We ourselves set people up against us by sending out 'vibes' (that’s a technical term) that we expect a fight. And that's exactly what we get: two people being defensive, and occasionally, offensive.
So how is this piece of interpersonal psychomagic (yep, just made that up) to be brought about? Ah, here’s the bit that may need a little practice…
By reflecting back what you see and hear, in effect, the evidence that you have indeed occupied yourself with the task of understanding rather than persuading. To do this, you need to set your mind to staying on the lookout for 3 types of data, moment by moment:
- How they feel
- What the feeling is about
- Why (they feel like that about that thing)
And when you have an idea of some of that, you begin to reflect it back. To keep it simple, here’s how it might sound if we were just paying attention to the listener for a few moments (you can imagine the other half):
You sound annoyed that we’re not going with the first idea...
It also sounds like you're really gloomy about chances of success...
...and what’s also really bothered you since, is that A has spoken about it at Board before I even had the decency to speak with you!
Each time we speak it is to reflect back their intellectual and emotional position (you might have to do this a few times in just a few minutes). When you have listened to their satisfaction, there is a very good chance that they will somehow let you know…
Yeah, you’re right, but what are we going to do about it?!
So are you going to change your mind? Or is it too late?
Are you going to speak to A?
The turning point might be subtle and it might not sound like much of a victory, but it’s there. It's an indication that they want to hear from you.